Thursday, November 21, 2019

Glaciers 3 – Mt. Cook /Aoraki

Into the mountains

If you really want to see the power of nature and particularly the might of ice and snow, Mt. Cook/ Aoraki is a good place to do it. The landscape changes again after Lake Tekapo. There are those dry brown slopes again, which I first noticed on driving up to Arrowtown. I wonder if they turn green in summer, the way Canada does? There is another lake here too – but unlike Lake Tekapo, this one is milky and opaque like an opal, reflecting the fact that it contains much more glacial “rock flour.” This is Lake Pukaki which you follow nearly all the way to Mt. Cook Village. The valley I am driving along has been carved by the combined scouring of at least three glaciers and the mountains on either side are tall enough to make their own weather. When the sun hits them early in the morning you can see the steam rising off the mountain tops as little white clouds which gradually clump together. By mid -afternoon, they have turned into rainclouds ready to come down as either rain or snow.

Lake Pukaki alongside the highway is a different blue

The road follows a typical U- shaped glacial valley. This one has been formed by the conjunction of three glaciers - it's hard to convey the scale

The easiest glacier to get to is the Tasman Glacier. Though like the others, it is now a shadow of its former self, it is in the process of making a large lake which currently sports a few icebergs. The wind is bitterly cold. Since the glacier no longer flows into the small lakes nearby, which used to be called “The Blue Lakes,” and these are now only fed by rainwater, they have turned green instead because they now support algae.  By walking further to Kea Point, you get a glimpse of both the Mueller Glacier and the Hooker Glacier which together have left behind an enormous moraine wall.

The Tasman Glacier - it's that grey horizontal strip in the middle, is melting fast  and has made a large proglacial lake. The glacier is grey because it is carrying a lot of debris which it will push to the sides making a moraine wall, or along the bottom, filling in holes as it goes and making those smooth looking valley floors
Icebergs calve off the glacier face and float in the lake

The once "Blue Lakes" are no longer blue because the Tasman Glacier no longer feeds them and rain water allows algae to grow, making them look green
At Kea Point you can see both the Hooker Glacier which comes in from the west  (top in this picture) and the Mueller Glacier  which comes in from the South (on the left in this case)
This is the massive moraine wall lef t behind at the point where they used to join

There are a number of other glaciers and longer walks here, but given my recent form and the rapidly deteriorating weather, I do an all -weather walk called the Governor’s Bush Walk. Apart from some great views, it was fascinating because it had a great variety of mosses and ferns as well as species such as celery top pines, which we have in Tasmania too. I can’t wait to show them to the lichen and moss experts to see if they are as similar as they look or only distant cousins. The degree of difference is a hint as to how long our two countries have been leading separate lives. My biggest thrill though, apart from seeing the glaciers, was finding a Mt. Cook Buttercup, the only one out so far.

Impressive lichens- the same or similar to those in Tasmania's south west

The magnificent Mt. Cook Buttercup -Ranunculus lyalli - is about 8cm (3.2 inches) across

There'll be no star -gazing tonight. The weather bureau has predicted overnight snow with road closures, but I have already booked and paid to do Milford Sound in a couple of days and I am still a very long way from there.

Wednesday, November 20, 2019

Franz Joseph to Arthur’s Pass and Lake Tekapo

Rain and more rain
Officially it's only 232 Km to Arthur's Pass but the road becomes more difficult after I leave Franz Joseph and I miss a lot of beautiful scenery because of the rain. Through a blurred windscreen I can make out precipitous mountains with snow on top and although I have breakfast at yet another lake, it’s another sodden affair because it’s raining so hard. In that respect it is also like our West Coast. It looks beautiful on a sunny day, but when it rains, and it rains a lot, it looks sad and dismal and you feel as if it will never end. At one of the few rest areas along this route, someone has put out two armchairs to take in the view of the beech -clad mountains, but as there’s no shelter, there’s no point stopping, though there's a sign close by which reads "Free showers and Tarot Readings." I'm not quite sure how those things go together.
I would have preferred to break this section up a bit more, but there are few hostels after Franz Joseph and I've already booked Arthur's Pass, so I  don't have much choice. I pass some very large braided rivers, a few uncontrolled rail crossings and one or two larger towns. I also find myself dodging a lot of big trucks, especially around Hercules Pass.

Another soggy breakfast, although at least this rest area has a shelter

The Otir Viaduct is an engineering wonder

The Otir Gorge Viaduct just before Arthur’s Pass is an engineering marvel spanning the valley with a slender 440m (1443’) long arch. Opened in1998, it is an engineering feat in more ways than one. It has also been made earthquake -resistant since this the second of only three passes between the east and the west and it lies directly over the Alpine Fault which runs almost the entire length of the South Island. The road I have been driving since Wanaka follows it closely and Franz Joseph Village sits right on top.  On its eastern flank, the Pacific Plate pushes upwards to make the Southern Alps higher, while the Indo –Australian Plate which underlies it on the eastern side, is trying to move north. Occasionally there are ructions. The 6.3 Christchurch Earthquake  in February 2016, was a wake -up call which the whole world heard about, but few people outside New Zealand heard about the even bigger one in Kaikoura the following November, which measured 7.8, possibly because there was less loss of life and much less property damage. Between them, they have inspired a flurry of research, more public awareness and a greater emphasis on disaster preparedness. Zoning laws have been modified to minimise potential damage - e.g.  No more new buildings can be built in Franz Joseph and critical infrastructure will most likely be progressively moved.  One small business in  Whataroa  just past Franz Joseph, has already seen the tourist potential.  

The Village of Arthur’s Pass is quaint, historic and a huge relief after a long period without any human habitation.  In the morning, despite drizzle, I do the walk to the Devil’s Punchbowl, a magnificent 131m high waterfall which is the second highest in New Zealand.  The walk is supposed to take about an hour, but it involves a steep uphill climb and I am pretty sure it took me a lot longer. I’ve been having a bit of trouble with those uphills for a while now and getting terrible cramps in my legs. At this stage I take my trekking pole and take my time, but I’m starting to feel glad that I didn’t book any of the longer walks such as the Milford Track or the Routeburn. If you do them in the tourist season you have to book well ahead and the huts cost around $145 - $175 per night. If you do them earlier it’s cheaper, but then they aren’t serviced. That means there’s no heat or running water and you have to carry everything in. There is also still the risk of avalanches and no DoC  staff to make sure it's safe before you proceed. For the moment I’m happy that I can still walk far enough to see such magnificent natural wonders – I always was a waterfall -bagger, rather than a long distance trekker anyway, but fear my days of longer walks and carrying 25 -30 Kg packs are very likely over, along with roughing it in tents.

The Devil's Punchbowl (131m), Arthur's Pass, is called Te Tautea oh Hinekakai by the Maori after a famous ancestral weaver Hinekakai who was the wife of an important chief, because the white strands of water reminded them of the fine strands of dressed flax used to make garments and mats
The mountain views are stunning too

 I really appreciated this seat after climbing all those stairs!

The next listed hostel is at Lake Tekapo, 305 Km south, via the Inland Scenic Route. Here too I wouldn't have minded a break of journey. Although I notice that there is a Backpacker establishment while passing through Geraldine, the necessity of having to book ahead at this time of year, means that unless they are listed online or part of a chain such as YHA, you don't  find this out until it's too late.  Being much closer to Christchurch, there is more traffic on this route than on the coastal side. Though I am still accompanied by high mountains, there are also patches of green and gold farmland and some larger towns such as Ashburton and Geraldine.

It's drier on this side - the pockets of farmland are the rich Canterbury Plains

After Geraldine, where the road becomes the Inland Scenic Route, it is called the Starlight Highway. This is because it is part of a Dark Sky Reserve centred on Lake Tekapo and Mt. Cook. The Mt. John Observatory at Lake Tekapo is a world famous centre for astronomical research which also offers tours.

Lake Tekapo itself is a popular tourist spot. It's main claim to fame is the Lake's brilliant blue colour created by the surrounding glaciers. Its second is its proximity to Aoraki (Mt. Cook). Although Mt. Cook's height has recently been revised downwards to 3724m due to a rockslide, it is still the highest mountain in New Zealand.  Perhaps I was too tired to appreciate it, or because I had already seen so many beautiful lakes, but Lake Tekapo just seemed like another overhyped tourist town to me. There I go again. One minute I am complaining because there's hardly anything between destinations. The next minute it's because where the services are, it tends to be very crowded.

The hostel is separate to, but part of a larger motel complex. It's clean, new, expensive and has all facilities, but lacks any kind of atmosphere. Not that you always want a rah, rah social life, but the few fellow inmates here seem to be inseparably wedded to the invisible world at the end of their iPads and iPhones. By the way, if you see a sign for a bakery in New Zealand, that doesn't mean that you can buy bread or or bread rolls - unless they are filled. They are mainly about pies.

Lake Tekapo is a magnificent sight

Tuesday, November 19, 2019

Glaciers 2 – Franz Joseph

Where the glacier stopped in 1908

Things improve almost immediately. The hostel I stay in in Franz Joseph welcomes you with free bowls of hot soup on arrival and also has a free hot tub, though I use the opportunity to wash and dry my clothes instead.  The girl who shares my dorm is from Brisbane and we have a nice little ensuite, bar fridge and coffee making facilities in our room. The main lounge is a friendly place too.  Next morning, despite intermittent showers, I do the 6 Km walk to the glacier. You can see how far it has retreated, especially in the last decade. In 2008, glaciologists said that it would shrink a further 38% by 2100, but it looks like it’s way ahead of schedule. Still, the waterfalls along the way make up for the long walk across the rubble left behind.  They’d be famous in their own right if they weren’t being upstaged by a glacier.

The long trek begins- you get an idea of the scale when you realise that there are two people walking the trail inside the red circle

Just a few of the many waterfalls along the way
Almost there -the 2009 Terminus is as far as you can go. It stops about 1Km before the actual glacier

Look but don't touch

At the spot where the glacier ended in in 2009, there are barriers to stop you going beyond the moraine wall - the big heap of rocks pushed down by the glacier. It looks tantalisingly close though it’s almost another kilometre away. My nasty suspicious mind immediately jumps to the conclusion that this might be for commercial reasons, to keep the guides and helicopters in business, but there have been a number of deaths. In 2009, an ice wall collapsed on two Australian brothers who ignored the warning signs. Even with experienced guides there is a risk. A helicopter crashed in deteriorating weather at Fox Glacier in 2015, killing all nine people aboard. The DoC checks the weather daily and closes the track if there is too much rain or a risk of flooding or rock falls. As the Rankers website says, “Don’t be a dick and risk someone else’s life to save yours.” We could do with signs that say that around our National Parks too.

I was a bit puzzled by this sign. Did it mean aliens were going to carry you off or that the mosquitoes were really big? I've seen them a lot since. Apparently they mean no drones allowed
A man having a chat with the Kea who seem to enjoy the company

If  the Kea aren't getting enough attention, they start chewing on the safety ropes

Cheeky Kea - mountain parrots, play to the crowd and do their best to undo the barrier ropes. Despite the vagaries of the weather, I am glad I am here now and not in peak season. One of the reviews says that the track becomes a highway then and about one chopper a minute flies overhead.
I would have loved to stay longer in Franz Joseph to see the wild glow worms and try out the public hot pools, but afterwards it rains hard and I have a long way to go before my next stop.

For a glimpse of what Franz Joseph looks like from the air, weather permitting, check out the Jelly Journeys blog. It also has sunshine view of the Otir Gorge Viaduct, which I tackle next.

Monday, November 18, 2019

Glaciers 1 - Fox

Another day, another lake. -Lake Paringa I think. So far I have been lucky with the weather, but today I am having to have my morning cuppa in my raincoat -apologies for blurry pics

New Zealand has 3,144 glaciers, including 18 on the North Island, but unless you are prepared to fly, only three are accessible by road – Fox, Franz Joseph and those around Mt. Cook.  As the crow or the helicopter flies Mt. Cook is a mere 23.3. Km away from Franz Joseph, but because there are only three passes over the Southern Alps, getting there by car involves a gruelling 6 -7 hour drive -something to look forward to tomorrow. Now I know why there were so many helicopters in Queenstown.

After Haast Pass, the highway follows the coast along a hard basalt ridge which resisted erosion by glaciers. It was also the most difficult section of the road. This is the view from Knight's Point

The Heritage Highway follows the coastline for a while before turning inland.  Along with the usual crowds, I stop for a while at Ship Creek, so named for a shipwreck which is reputedly visible at low tide.  There are two short walks here – one along the beach, the other into swampland.

The Swamp Walk at Ship Creek offers glimpses into an almost lost, species rich habitat. I half expect a crocodile to break the surface at any moment, but apart from a few skinks, New Zealand is mercifully free of reptiles
Low lying relatively flat areas like this with access to the sea were not only a rich food and fibre source for the Maori, but were very attractive to early settlers seeking pastoral land which could be easily cleared, making this type of habitat very rare now. The little that remains has been included in a vast UNESCO World Heritage Site which covers 10% of  New Zealand’s land area and extends from  Fjordland in the south,  via Mt. Aspiring in the west and Mt. Cook in the east to beyond the glaciers to the north.  Ancient Kahikatea trees, a type of conifer and New Zealand’s tallest tree, can still be seen here, although most were cleared for agriculture and especially to make the unique butter boxes used to transport New Zealand’s dairy produce to the UK.  The abundance of marine life here – fur seals, crested penguins, Hector’s diminutive dolphins, a variety of sea birds and the occasional whale, are now also protected in a series of marine reserves. 

Few of the ancient  Kahikatea trees whose ancestors date from Jurrasic times remain. I am particularly intrigued by the way plants such as ferns, mooses, orchids and lillies establish themselves high up in the branches. I'm also surprised that there aren't more mosquitoes in this primordial soup, but then I am covered in Deet

New Zealand's rainforest is lighter than ours. Perhaps because the canopy is thinner.

By the time I get to the Fox Glacier turn -off, the rain has miraculously eased to light drizzle. Alas, the access road has been partially washed away by  catastrophic floods and landslips in March 2019 and having already spent thousands on the road in recent years, it looks like the Department of Conservation  (DoC) is not going to bother repairing it again, especially as the glacier has shrunk so much.

In some places, half the road has washed away leaving only a narrow footpad

A tiny hot spring burbles beside the track

An alternative track, the Moraine Walk is pretty and informative, but only leads to a lookout from which you can just make out the outline of the retreating glacier. Although it is one of the larger glaciers, guided walks have been abandoned here since 2016 and the only way to see it properly now is via helicopter.  Strangely this has not deterred the crowds. Glacier tourism is still on the rise. Depending on which reports you read, 700,00 people a year still come to see them and in 2007, glacier tourism was worth around $NZ 100 million to the New Zealand economy.  In her excellent  article about the future of glacier tourism, Heather Purdie*  argues that this “could be understood in terms of last-chance tourism, a phenomenon defined in part as “tourists explicitly seeking vanishing landscapes” (Lemelin et al 2010: 478). If nothing else it confirms that climate change is real, in case you need convincing. Low level temperate zone glaciers such as these appear to be especially vulnerable as are those in the tropics.

Seeing the places where the glacier has progressively retreated and dumped its load of  rocks and gravel  reminds me of a slow - moving disaster movie

My only glimpse of the Fox Glacier - it's as close as you can get without taking a flight

The weather begins to close in again as I leave. Pretty soon I am cold and wet and the rain seems to seep into my soul. I had planned to walk Lake Matheson and stay in Fox Glacier Township that night, but Lake Matheson’s famous reflections don’t work in the rain or even when it’s windy, so I continue on to Franz Joseph, completely forgetting that I had prepaid for this hostel.


For another excellent article on the state of the world's cryozone see also "Cold Hard Truth" by Vaughan Yarwood in New Zealand Geographic. 

* Heather Purdie "Glacier Retreat and Tourism: Insights from New Zealand," Mountain Research and Development 33(4), 463-472, (1 November 2013).
  1. H Lemelin J Dawson E Stewart 2012. Last Chance Tourism: Adapting Tourism Opportunities in a Changing World. London, United Kingdom: Routledge. Google Scholar
  2. H Lemelin J Dawson E Stewart P Maher M Jueck 2010. Last-chance tourism: The boom, doom, and gloom of visiting vanishing destinations. Current Issues in Tourism 13(5):477–493. Google Scholar